I turned 36 last week, but birthdays haven’t meant much to me for the majority of my adult life. When I was a kid, there wasn’t money for a party every year, but my parents let me have a slumber party every other year – odd years meant a family dinner, but even years meant pizza and basketball and a late night of Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t bother trying to pretend your birthday parties were better — I was a gifted Dungeonmaster. My parents were awesome about trying to let me have fun on my birthdays, always. And they’ll probably never admit it, but I still believe they went without things so that I and my brother and my sister could have cool gifts.
Growing up takes away some of that magic. You stop focusing on blowing out the candles because it starts feeling like a show, instead of something that’s actually going to
make your most fervent wish come true. I think it’s interesting that my superstition for birthday candles faded FAR later than any stock in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. In point of fact, I’m not sure it didn’t fade later than my belief in government. I was already cynical about a lot of worldly issues before I decided that cake didn’t have magical powers. The only good thing about the realization was that I got to stop eating cake, which I’ve never really liked.
If my Mom is reading this … yes, except your Black Forest Walnut-Raspberry Tort. That was very good. And your cheesecake.
My golden birthday in 1994 was something special. I spent the summer overseas in the Republic of Georgia from May to September that year, and I’d actually just arrived in Tbilisi days before my birthday. The Georgian Independence Day is on 26 May, and there were rehearsals going on. A stringer who was in town for a good part of that summer grabbed me and took me to watch and film the military formations, and no sooner had the soldiers discovered that there was an American in their midst (and that it was my birthday) than they dragged me up atop a tank, gifted me an officer’s cap … and suddenly, I was Michael Fucking Dukakis. Feeling like a badass and looking like an idiot. The idiot aspect is partly derivative of the perma-grin, and partly because they kept kissing me (a regional custom). I can’t even deny the making out because I have a videotape of the whole thing. All of that courtesy of Alex the Stringer, who was garnering all the clips he could that summer for the music videos he was personally producing, overlaying techno onto scenes of actual warfare. Think: Faces of Death meets Night at the Roxbury.
I remember my 21st birthday rocked, too. I’d seen a lot of my friends turn 21 in college, and it was eminently clear that your 21st birthday was not for you, and had nothing to do with you having a good time or becoming a man. At school, this was a holiday for your friends, who got to accomplish revenge for every slight – real or imagined – you’d ever offered them. My friends who turned 21 during the school year were lucky to remember the day at all. It was just hazing for people who didn’t otherwise bother to join the Greek system.
In 1995, and to foil my “well-wishers,” I went with my best friend Jonas and my Dad to Atlantic City. The reasoning is pretty clear, right? You can legally drink (as if anyone waits for that) on your 21st birthday, but what else can you do? You can gamble. We headed to the boardwalk and wandered around the Trump and Trop World, me sticking my driver’s license in the face of everyone wearing a cheesy red sport coat. The three of us got mildly buzzed on Heineken, spent mild money on slot machines and smoked mild cigars, and generally had a fantastic time.
I know I’ve received great gifts from my folks here and there since then, but I don’t have a birthday I remember celebrating really well since those early ones. It’s very possible I could be offending someone deeply with that, but I’m just sayin’.
That could also be the vehemence with which the whole holiday got old. I swore off birthdays in 2004. In October of 2001, I tried to throw a surprise 30th birthday party for my then-wife, and I enlisted several of her friends to help. I asked them to pass the word to friends in their social circles. My ex-wife and I were living in McLean and I spent six weeks trying to get people to answer my emails and commit to coming, and two weeks ramping up and working on the place to make it impressive to the hordes of well-wishers who were intended to arrive. I persevered (and cooked) under the assumption that the lack of RSVPs just meant that people hadn’t bothered, but were going to show. They didn’t. We had five guests, and two of them were my friends. If my ex-wife wonders how many good friends she had in those days, I’m not sure why. I got a running start at trying for a nice surprise and that’s who showed.
Fast forward: the lack of guests was nevertheless my fault, and 2 1/2 years is child’s play in terms of time to bide to take your revenge, if you’re talented at staying angry for epic blocks of your life. I woke up on 20 May 2004 early but went to work late, and I left work early and went to bed late. Despite hanging out and hoping, I spent my entire 30th without ever hearing the words “Happy Birthday” spoken in my home. It hurt enough that I decided the whole thing wasn’t worth it – birthdays or the marriage. I was gone two months later.
For me, birthdays have evolved into what New Year’s Eve is supposed to be. On 31 December, I like fireworks – the bigger, the better, baby. I’ve never been sure why everyone is supposed to analyze their lives on the same day, and especially on the same day that we’re all concurrently also supposed to be getting wasted. For me, my birthday has become the adult equivalent of resolution time. The decisions I made last week about a couple of things that need to or should happen will stay offline, but I also spent some time reflecting on the major areas of my life.
This year my birthday felt special again. Alison took me out for a great dinner at Carlyle, a four-star local joint, but after that we relaxed — exactly the time with her and respite from everything else I needed. She was an island in the middle of a hard work week, and that struck the right chord. But beyond that, I’m feeling pretty great about the snapshot on this 36th birthday. I’m still not crazy about my job, but I wonder whether anyone in my industry actually is, and meanwhile I’m pretty good at what I do. I can keep doing it for as long as they’ll have me or until someone rich and famous offers to hire me for $1M/yr to just offer them good advice. This last year’s greatest news: I’ve reconnected with a woman who defies description in terms of the ways that she is good for me; I’ll refrain here, but one of these days I may just break down and embarass her with an open love letter. On the other possible stressor in life, I’ve struck an uneasy detente with the mother of my kids (to wit: neither of us, to the best of my knowledge, are looking to hire assassins) that allows me some flexibility of schedule and time to spend with my children. Who, as it turns out, are turning into pretty neat little kids. And on top of Old Smokey, I’m working on my discipline, fitness and my book, and generally getting back into a couple of hobbies that used to mean quite a bit to me.
I know all of this seems like January talk – but on NYE I’m eying the bottles of wine, not getting deep. My birthday sparks real reactions. And wouldn’t you know it, the rhetorical question actually has an answer: Sixteen miles and what do you get? A life you actually want to be amidst.